Fighting for Their Lives in the Peace Country

By Angela Bischoff and Tooker Gomberg, Peace Country, Northwestern Alberta.

A small, Christian community strives for self-sufficiency but ends up battling the oil and gas industry.

“Let me pull the trigger” quipped Wiebo Ludwig, sitting next to the gas facility. But don’t jump to conclusions; we were only sitting in his mini-van at a gas station in Grande Prairie. Wiebo then pulled the latch and filled his gas tank. The smell of gasoline, more specifically benzene, wafted in the air.

Two days later, the van exploded. Everybody’s wondering ‘who-done-it?’, but the deeper questions are: why this wave of vandalism in the oil and gas industry, and; why the attack on the Ludwigs? Last week we decided to investigate.

After three days as guests of the Trickle Creek Farm in northwestern Alberta, we discovered the most explosively powerful story of all: their self-reliance. Many environmentally-concerned people know the problems related to pollution. But the 35 members of the Ludwig and Boonstra extended family are living proof that sustainable alternatives are do-able. They show that a strong community can, in just 15 years, become self-sufficient – grow their own organic food, brew their own wine and herbal coffee, even bolt a windmill to the top of a 65 foot tower made of poles fashioned from nearby trees. From the wheat in their bread to the wool hats on their heads to the soap they scrub with, virtually everything consumed on the farm comes from their land.

“You can get everything off the land that you need. You don’t get luxuries, but you get everything that the Lord provides for your needs. And once you start realizing that, you say ‘wow’; we have got to protect this land. We can’t let it get ruined.” Mamie Lou, Wiebo’s wife explained.

The Ludwigs and Boonstras, over the past few months, have become well-known as outspoken critics of the oil and gas industry. Many family members are also accused of involvement in bombing and vandalism of oil and gas facilities. From all the hype, one might expect an armed compound at the Trickle Creek Farm. Yes, we spied a couple of tanks on the property, but these were more akin to ploughshares made from swords. The tanks were discarded oil industry tanks buried underground and used as walk-in root cellars. Inside, we found not bombs but beets, carrots and potatoes, kept cool and crisp through the long winter.

Over meals, Reverend Ludwig read from the Bible, and we debated everything from homosexuality to woman’s place in society. We didn’t agree on everything. But we appreciated their desire to live their own lives, as a strong and healthy community, with little interference from the outside world. All was good until the oil and gas industry burst onto the scene a few years back.

You don’t need to be a Talmudic scholar to appreciate that it just isn’t right to throw poisons onto your neighbour’s property. If you went downtown with a barrel of benzene and allowed it to waft into the air and pour out onto the pavement, you would be hauled away in shackles and locked up for a while.

But if Alberta Energy Company, or any other company for that matter, comes by to punch a hole on your neighbour’s property and spew carcinogens into your air, tough luck. These are the biggest players on the planet, puffed up on bully and bluster and a whole lotta bucks and influence.

The Alliance Pipeline, at a cost of $4 billion, has sparked a prospecting rush to locate and tap into pools of underground natural gas. Gas activity has exploded in the last few years with up to 15,000 wells being drilled annually. There are now over 70,000 active producing wells and 150,000 miles of oil and gas pipeline in Alberta, some very old and with pinhole leaks.

Once gas is discovered, the companies pour highly-toxic benzene, toluene, ethylene, and xylene down the hole. These poisonous chemicals, along with hundreds of other carcinogenic and mutagenic substances, are then released, or vented, into the atmosphere for a period of seven days or more. The force of the exhausted gases shakes the earth, causing a deafening din, sounding like a roaring locomotive even half a mile away.

Once a gas well is put in place, there may be additional flaring, and numerous gas plants that process the gas from many wells also cause significant air pollution. Ethylene glycol dehydrators that upgrade the gas, vent 3 to 9 tonnes per year of carcinogenic benzene onto agricultural land.

We were told of strange behaviour in the woods. Extensive tree stands are developing tree rot; deer are eating pine needles; birds are showing signs of immune deficiency; and moose are dying from a massive tick infestation, possibly due to weakened immune systems from acid snow and atmospheric pollution. “I’ve seen three dead moose lying for days, and it’s like they are poisoned and embalmed. They are not bloating up, and the coyotes and ravens won’t even touch them,” we were told by Allan Johnstone, a Beaverlodge environmentalist.

Mamie Lou put it this way: “Studies are coming out now that show that it’s very dangerous for animals. The government won’t make the steps to say: hey, that if it’s dangerous to animals it’s got to be dangerous to humans. Are we just interested in big business, in cattle, in how healthy they are, or are we interested in our children, in our future of people? It seems they don’t care about that – they just care about big business.”

The Ludwig’s themselves attribute four human miscarriages, including a deformed birth, and dozens of animal deaths and deformities to gas-well venting and flaring from facilities surrounding their land. The real eco-terrorism is what is going up the stacks, and into the water.

Across western Canada, farmers, ranchers and others are starting to voice their concerns about an industry that is running roughshod over the health of the land, the animals, and the people. And like a choir, they’re just getting tuned. Industry and government would be wise to face the music and act on their concern.

Concludes Wiebo: “Land and a place to live is an inviolable, sort of fundamental right and necessity, especially if you’re going to live like we do. We feel we have a stewardship responsibility to the land and if we don’t protect it, nobody else is going to. That’s a fundamental responsibility that we feel even, in a sense, to the death because it is your death when they take the land from you. It is real critical, something we’ve lost in our generation. We just flit around and sell and buy and we don’t put down roots. When you put down roots, it’s a whole different ballgame.”